Meeting and interviewing Kim Nguyen after she had just been told her son would be hanged is something that still haunts me.
She could barely speak through her grief at the thought that her boy’s life was about to be taken, and that he would not be given another chance.
“He is good, a very nice boy,” she told me.
“He has tried hard at school and work. I have to say, my family are not the kind of people who support drugs. I hate it…it’s not me.”
Van Tuong Nyugen is a name you might remember from 2005 when he was executed in Singapore for carrying 400 grams of heroin through Changi airport.
Kim Nguyen at her son’s funeral with a friend, image via theage.com.au
He was on his way home to Australia where he would use the money from the sale of the drug to pay a $30,000 debt owed by his twin brother Khoa, a former heroin addict.
When Van faced trial, the death sentence for the amount of heroin he was carrying was mandatory. His appeals and pleas for clemency failed and on December 2nd, 2005, in the early hours of the morning, he was taken from his cell to an execution chamber. There, he was hanged. He was 24.
This week SBS-TV will air a drama in two parts, called Better Man – and it has raised confronting questions about privacy and grief.
And this question too: Is Van’s legal fight, his extraordinary rehabilitation in prison where he found a deep level of spirituality touching all those who were fighting for him, and then his execution, rightly the fodder for a television drama?
Van’s mother, Kim, thinks not.
She is immensely distressed and traumatised by SBS’s decision to broadcast the drama. It’s tampered with wounds that haven’t yet healed – and probably never will. She feels the drama violates her right to privately grieve.
Kim has written to the director of Better Man and her local MP, Anna Burke, the speaker of the federal parliament, has taken up her cause.
“Know the truth. Understand what is right and wrong. In writing a short story, like you did, you touched our family’s wounds once again,” Kim wrote.
“Don’t do it for your personal benefit. You haven’t had enough understanding of a parents’ responsibility.
“You are not much older than my kid. Do you know what really happened? All you could do is listen to other people’s gossip. You have violated our rights and made our family’s life so difficult,” wrote Kim.
Kim fought long and hard for her son who, after he was sentenced to death, searched deep for redemption.
He spent his days and nights worrying for his mother, who had brought up her twin boys alone, having come to Australia in 1975 as a boat person to find a better life. Kim couldn’t fathom that one day soon, the hangman would come calling for her boy.
“The Australian people have to put more pressure on the government in Singapore to please give him forgiveness, to adjourn,” she told me.
“He is a young man; it’s not like, one mistake and kill him, that’s not fair to me, that’s not good.”
Prime Minister, John Howard and his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer took up the campaign for clemency at a political and diplomatic level.
But Australia was divided. 46 years after this country sent its last condemned man, Ronald Ryan to the gallows, we still found enough energy to debate whether death by execution could ever be a deserved punishment delivered by a civilised society.
On talk back radio, there were more than a few who thought Van had done the crime, that he intended to peddle the heroin on the streets of Melbourne and spread the scourge of heroin, that though he didn’t intend to enrich himself and wanted only to help his twin brother he should pay for his crime with his life.
Others viewed the punishment as barbaric.
Lawyer Julian McMahon told me this week that Van Nguyen’s execution gave him the resolve to fight for others on death row. He now acts for Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, the so-called ringleaders of the Bali nine drug traffickers. Both are waiting to be killed by firing squad; they spoke to Channel Seven’s Sunday Night show about how waiting on death row has changed them.
Lawyer Julian McMahon talks to Kim Nguyen, image via theage.com.au
“The case ultimately was and is a cause of great sadness, but nothing compared to the burden of the family, or of those who suffer family tragedies,” Julian McMahon says of Van Nguyen’s execution.
He believed up until the final rejection of clemency that there was hope. But 8 years later, he looks back and sees things differently.
“Once the trial was commenced, conviction was perhaps inevitable, and the death sentence mandatory – the Singaporeans knew that better than anyone,” he says.
“By the start of trial it was all too late, as in retrospect we can now see that the sentence tied the hands of the rigid government. There was effectively no public campaign of any kind until after the final rejection in October 2005.
The death sentence is now no longer mandatory for certain drug trafficking offences in Singapore. Sentencing judges have a degree of discretion.
“The new law would probably have meant Van would have been sentenced to life imprisonment and caning,” says McMahon.
None of this can help Kim and Khoa Nguyen. And this week, their pain will peak again as their grief is dramatized.
As Anna Burke put it: “The surviving twin is going through hell and with the title Better Man it leaves someone wondering: who is the worse man?”
MORE ARTICLES BY MONICA ATTARD
*Monica Attard OAM is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch. She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter: @attardmon.